The Stench from Newtown Creek in the 1870’s and 1880’s

During the Civil War Newtown Creek was what it had always been – a waterway perfect for swimming or for boating. The creek teemed with striped bass and other fish. Clams and oysters covered the banks of the creek. Regattas and rowing races  were popular attractions for Greenpointers.

However, in the years after the Civil War heavy industry including oil refining and fertilizer production entered the area and made the area around the creek one of the most industrialized places in America. Greenpoint quickly grew into one of the most industrialized areas in the United States  and it had more oil refining than any place on planet earth. Just a few years after the end of the Civil War  the waterway had changed from pristine creek  into one of the most polluted places on earth.   The creek was lined with Oil refineries and fertilizer plants that were united by a common by-product of oil refining Sludge acid. Refineries produced hundreds of gallons of the toxin daily and when they could not handle disposing of it, they simply dumped it in the Creek. Rapidly the fish and other wildlife in the creek died.

The sludge acid that was left over from refining oil was also  an essential ingredient in the production of fertilizer and Newtown Creek became a center of the fertilizer industry.  There was a major problem with this sludge oil that was an essential ingredient in the production of fertilizer. It stank to high heaven and frequently the  winds that blew from the East carried the stenches of Newtown Creek across to the residences of the affluent in Murray Hill in  Manhattan.

The New York Times began to report with increasing regularity on the stenches wafting over the east river throughout the eighteen-seventies and into the eighteen-eighties. The TImes reported in a May 5th 1878 report about the stench emanating from the creek. It noted how the sludge acid mixed with decaying fish,flesh and all sorts of offal. The refuse from the plants was dumped into Newtown Creek whence it readily found its way into the East River, covering the water thickly with a greasy poisonous substance. When the Enoch Coe Fertilizer Company was prosecuted for its production of noxious odors no one in the court room was brave enough to remove the stopper from a bottle of its sludge acid.  The TImes also noted that the district was the worst smelling district in the world The TImes reported on the Long Island Railroad’s journey to Hunter’s point with obvious disgust. A reporter stated, The waters of Newtown Creek run through a region that gives out more disgusting smells per square inch than any other portion of the world can furnish in a square mile. ” The report also stated” There is not a man, woman or child who travels the Long Island Railroad who will not testify to the horrible nature of the smells, which assail the passengers during their needless journey along Newtown Creek.”

A special Committee of the New York State Health Department did a fact-finding mission along the creek and reported that the creek was so full of oil and refuse that the water almost has the consistency of tart. The first of many noxious odors greeting the committee was the stench from manure boats, which discharged their holds for the area’s fertilizer plants.  When visiting one of the plants that mixed water with sludge acid the odor was so strong that Assemblyman Brooks who was along with the delegation commented that the power of the smell was as if ” A knife had pierced him after taking one whiff.  The committee had the power to recommend the closing of any plant that polluted the creek with sludge or allowed offensive smells to escape, but Standard Oil was a powerful force in Albany and knew whom to pay so that the firm could continue polluting the stream for years to come. If the smell was noxious in Manhattan one can only imagine how much stronger the stench was in Greenpoint. It is not surprising tha  the eighteen-seventies witnessed  many rich families moving out of Greenpoint. Smells from industry and water purification would be a reality of Greenpoint living for another century.

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